Why I... believe employability need not displace critical citizenship

January 11, 2002

Teachers of cultural studies and social sciences must address the issue of "employability" more forcefully - not just because the government requires university education to be tied more closely to economic needs but because students increasingly insist on it.

A decade ago, most students took our courses for their intrinsic interest and did not think about employment until after completing their study. Our main concern was to enable them to become critically informed citizens, leaving them to find their own way into employment. We are rightly pressed to deliver employability more consciously and systematically, but can we deliver this and retain the goal of critical citizenship?

During the same period, there has been rapid growth in the knowledge economy. According to the Centre for Research into Quality in Higher Education at the University of Central England, employers in this sector want flexible, intelligent, multiskilled and adaptable employees. They therefore argue for an education that develops critical thinking and reasoning skills and the ability to self-reflect and learn from experience. Other frequently requested skills are those in teamworking, information technology and communication.

These formulations bear a striking resemblance to the core aims of many cultural studies and social science programmes. In principle then, it looks as if we are already training for employability, albeit often not consciously.

But there are two potential difficulties. First, we do not always teach the skills we claim to. Many courses spend a large proportion of their assessment on testing the understanding of concepts and debates via exams and coursework essays. But how many give space for, or assess, "learning from experience" or "critical self-reflection", not to mention teamwork, dealing with change and multi-skilled forms of communication? To deliver employability, courses need to consider whether they are ensuring that this range of skills is developed and assessed. Group projects leading to presentations or media productions is one good way of achieving this.

The second point of tension is that while these employability skills are compatible with "critical citizenship", they are not sufficient to deliver it. Arguably, one can be a creative cultural industry worker with little grasp of sociocultural structures and processes. A critical citizen needs also to understand how power and inequality are structured in our society, how sociocultural processes of inclusion and exclusion work and the significance of "difference" in the contemporary world, whether we are talking about class, ethnicity, religion, gender or sexuality. I would suggest that someone who possesses these skills but who also has a critical citizen's awareness will make a far better employee in this sector.

For instance, issues relating to ethnic difference and multiculturalism have not only shot up the political agenda over the past decade but are also thoroughly embedded in the workings of consumer capitalism. One dimension of this is the pluralisation of brands and products to address niche markets, including those defined by ethnicity. An understanding of cultural difference, multiculturalism and hybridity is essential for critical citizenship and a key requirement for those working in the cultural industries, whether selling hair products or writing leaflets for local councils. All culture-industry jobs are ambiguous political spaces: if they are filled by critical citizens, we can hope for a progressive and inclusive inflection.

We should produce programmes that develop skills for both sociocultural critique and employment. We are more likely to succeed if we can demonstrate to students that, in becoming a good social scientist, they can also make themselves very employable.

Alan O'Shea
Formerhead of cultural studies
University of East London

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